The following is an attempt to tackle the myth of racist intent, and why it is false to believe that racism needs intent. The other day I entered the restaurant portion of a performing arts establishment and one of the menu items was chicken fritters in Asian sauce.
My eyes nearly popped out of my head when I saw the sign because it was an example of racism in its microscopic form. I thought to myself what does Asian sauce signify, because the point of naming a food is to refer back to its country or place of origin? The referent of Asia is so large and encompassed billions of people; the term Asian, in this context, seems to fall under the weight of the very thing it is attempting to signify.
As I was expressing my anger to my best friend, she reminded me of the time when our college, an institution that prides itself on social justice, served us African Spiced Rice in our dining hall. This again is another word that crumbles under the weight of its referent. Which country in Africa were they trying to bring to our dining hall; Congo, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Egypt? Clearly someone should have thought twice before naming a dish African Spiced Rice.
Even more ridiculous than the idea of Asian sauce was the conversation that I then entered into. I claimed that it was racist to term a sauce Asian because it takes part of the larger discourse of minimalizing the rich and diverse cultures of Asia. Someone responded that it can’t be racist because whoever wrote it did not intend for it to be racist. I believe that intent has nothing to do with racism, you can intend all you want to but what is more important than intent is what discourses your action relies on. An action can be done with the best intention but still rely on racist discourse i,e; white people touching African-American hair.
He went on to claim that racism is something evil, malicious and that if something was an accident then it couldn’t be racist. I think it’s bad ideology to only conceive of racism in terms of evil intent, especially since racism has now shifted into something that is often accidental, unspoken, and nice. To think of racism in those terms elides the many ways in which racism currently functions. To believe that racism can no longer be marked by intent, however, opens up the entire field of behavior to questions of racism. Something scary indeed, but since racism has left its fingerprints everywhere I think it’s time to turn on the lights. For far too long we have been looking for racism in a dark room— tricked into believing its fingerprints would glow in the dark.
Since racism can no longer be defined by an evil intent how does one mark that which is racist? Which act, word, or glance falls into that category? An impossible task to be sure which is why I don’t think there can ever be a prescriptive approach. To think prescriptively in this situation would be silly. Racism isn’t singular and prescriptive approaches rarely leave room for change or adaptation. Descriptive politics allow for fluidity in handling situations and is more in tune with the shifting nature of our world. Granted, they are harder to do because there is no set list of rules. But what is more important: doing that which is easy, or that which can effect great change?
To rethink the question “what makes something racist?” from a descriptive point of view is important because the question begs for a prescriptive answer. A more nuanced way of thinking about this requires us to stop thinking of people as racist and instead begin to conceive of actions and behaviors as partaking in a racist discourse— this does two things. Firstly, it places racism away from the idea of evil and malicious intent and instead conceives of it as a structural problem. Secondly, it places the focus on what you do instead of who you are. If you call someone racist then you are telling them that at their core they are racist, but there is no singular self so therefore the logic of calling someone racist is outdated. By reframing the discussion around racist discourses instead of being racist, we allow for the complexity of humanity and our interactions.
The problem with naming a dish Chicken Fritters in Asian Sauce or African Spiced Rice is that the names are ultimately meaningless. Asia and Africa are both large continents with diverse cuisines. I read moments like this as an example of Americans oversimplifying the rich cultural traditions of other non-white societies. The unspoken part of all this being that those non-white societies aren’t important enough to understand or differentiate so they can be lumped together. By looking at how things interact with racist discourse we end the myth that racism is comprised of atypical acts committed by racist people. The fight towards seeing racism as quotidian instead of atypical has been taken on before by author Sharon Patricia Holland in her book The Erotic Life of Racism
and on the popular website Microaggressions
. It is an important fight because until we take responsibility for the way our individual actions perpetuate a larger system things will never change.